Pittsburgh responds to New Zealand massacre


Hannah Heisler | Staff Photographer

Prayer rugs laid out at Sunday evening’s “Rehumanize: A Vigil for Muslims in New Zealand” memorial.

By Neena Hagen, Senior Staff Writer

Only five months after white supremacist Robert Bowers killed 11 congregants at Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, another gunman fatally shot more than 50 Muslims at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand — marking two of the most deadly hate crimes against Jews and Muslims in recent history.

Fawwaz Haq, executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, or ICP, an Islamic educational and community outreach organization based in Oakland, said only the outpouring of support from Pittsburgh’s community could mitigate the pain of such a tragedy.

“When I was scrolling through the headlines Thursday night, all I could feel was disgust,” Haq said. “But that feeling changed to gratitude when I saw how many people came [to the center] the Friday after to pray with us.”

The center’s headquarters, an unassuming brick building on Bigelow Boulevard, usually commands a crowd of about 500 for Friday prayer, but on March 15, hundreds more showed up — and not just Muslims. Haq said members of the Tree of Life Synagogue joined the gathering, as well as Mayor Bill Peduto’s Chief of Staff Dan Gilman and dozens of police officers flanking the scene.

“On the surface, we may all seem different,” Haq said of Friday’s congregation. “We have different faiths. But we all just want to have the freedom to worship our god, and that’s what unites us.”

That Friday prayer was only the first of several efforts to uplift Pittsburgh’s Muslim community after the shooting. Hundreds gathered Sunday evening at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall for a vigil honoring the victims of the New Zealand massacre.

Nabeeha Affan, a Muslim Pitt student studying neuroscience who attended the vigil, said the incident brought the hateful act closer to home.

“Hearing the names of the victims being read out, I could picture my dad, my mom and my younger brother,” Affan said. “It’s really easy to read the headlines and feel saddened by what happened, but when you hear about their lives and the families they left behind, you realize this could’ve been us.”

As Tree of Life Synagogue’s Rabbi Jeffrey Myers noted at the vigil, Pittsburgh had before suffered tremendous loss at the hands of a white supremacist just a few short months ago.

“When I heard the news [of the Christchurch shootings], it was as though a scab was ripped off my wounds once again,” Myers said. “When you kill human beings, I don’t know what species you belong to that you want to do something like that.”

To support the Muslim community in its time of mourning, Pittsburgh Jewish congregations Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life announced a campaign Saturday called “Worship without Fear,” a fundraiser to help cover security costs at the ICP, which has ramped up police presence in the weeks since the Christchurch massacre.

“We not only condemn and vow to fight against anti-Semitism, we are also dedicated to the eradication of all forms of prejudice, discrimination and hatred directed at others,” Sam Schachner, president of Tree of Life Synagogue, said.

After the Tree of Life shooting, two Muslim organizations, CelebrateMercy and MPower Change, raised $200,000 for the synagogue within 48 hours of the tragedy. Schachner said he wants to pay that effort forward.

“Through this initiative, we are now doing what we inherently know is the right thing, and that is to love thy neighbor and that means stepping up and supporting our Muslim brothers and sisters, just as they have supported us,” Schachner said.

The public can contribute through LaunchGood, a fundraising site, which Haq said will help “protect the adults and children who attend the center everyday.”

Many politicians have also shared their prescriptions for protecting those in minority communities. New Zealand politicians on all sides of the political spectrum agreed to pass sweeping gun reform, banning military-style semi-automatic assault rifles throughout the nation three days after the shooting took place.

“Every semi-automatic weapon used in the terrorist attack on Friday will be banned in this country … to make our community safer,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, just before signing the legislation.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and several City Council members have tried to pass similar legislation in Pittsburgh, which would include a ban on military-style assault rifles and bump stocks within City limits. But Peduto hasn’t enjoyed the same success as New Zealand lawmakers — critics say the proposal is “unenforceable and prone to civil rights violations.”

Haq said he doesn’t have the expertise to determine whether Pittsburgh and New Zealand’s gun policies will reduce the number of hate crimes against religious minorities, but he wants government leaders to stop posturing politically and pass laws they believe will actually save lives.

“When you get elected, you’re no longer a politician — you’re a leader for the people you represent,” Haq said. “You have to keep those people safe and encourage them to come together.”

When it comes to unity and good leadership, Haq believes all community leaders and politicians can follow Pittsburgh’s example.

“The way Pittsburgh has taken tragedies like Tree of Life and the Christchurch massacre and used them to strengthen our bonds makes me so proud to call myself a religious leader in this city,” Haq said. “We truly are stronger than hate.”

Maggie Young contributed reporting to this story.